By James Hemker
Starting today, top-ranked Stanford women’s swimming and diving will be competing for the final time this season at the 2019 NCAA Championships in Austin, Texas. As defending three-time Pac-12 champions and two-time national champions, the Cardinal enter championship week as the favorites.
Unlike the past two years’ teams, which were led by strong sprint and relay performances from the likes of Olympians Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky, this squad has used their sheer depth across multiple strokes to overwhelm all other schools that they have faced thus far. At Pac-12’s, 15 of the 21 events had a Stanford swimmer finish in the top three. This evolution, in the eyes of head coach Greg Meehan, is not a bad thing.
“A couple of years ago, we were really good in sprint/stroke events, and in the last year or so we have been really good in distance/middle-distance events,” he explained. “To me that means we have a really well-rounded program here because if you are a sprinter, you’ll get coached up really well, and same with if you’re a distance swimmer. We don’t stick to one and say we are a distance program or we are a sprint program.”
This year there are a few events in that middle-distance range which are heavily weighted in Stanford’s favor. Ten events at Pac-12’s had three or more Cardinal finalists, and three of those events (500 free, 400 IM, 200 back) had four or more Stanford swimmers in the top-eight.
Meehan has no issues with loading up some events while not worrying too much about others. The driving force behind this is the fact that at NCAAs, there is no scoring cutoff. In dual meets, teams are only allowed to have their top three swimmers score in an event, but in these big invitationals, that restriction is lifted.
“That is just a function of the makeup of our team,” he said. “I know this isn’t how most people feel, but for me, points are points. If we are really good in an event, and we load it up, that’s fine. If we have a weak event then that’s fine also. They don’t change point totals if you have more or fewer swimmers in the event.”
Further representing their depth, the Cardinal will be sending 18 qualifiers, the maximum allotted, in the form of 16 swimmers and four divers (divers count as half). Stanford had 18 qualifiers last year when they scored the most points at NCAA’s in over a decade.
“Where we help ourselves is we have our stellar top-end, but that very next group of swimmers is also really good,” Meehan said.
Leading that top-end category is senior Ella Eastin, who has performed exceptionally well over the course of the season. She broke half a dozen pool records across the conference and emerged from Pac-12’s with three more individual titles to bring her total to nine. The 10-time national champion will look to defend her individual titles from last year in the 400 IM, 200-yard butterfly and 200 IM.
Having won the past three years, Eastin will be looking for a career sweep of the 400 IM. She holds back-to-back titles in the 200-yard butterfly, and in the 200 IM she has been tops in two of her last three years.
In addition to Eastin, who holds the fastest 400 IM seed time as well as the third fastest 200 fly seed time, five other Cardinal swimmers enter the meet with a top-five time in their events.
Sophomore Lauren Pitzer holds the fastest 500-yard free time by almost a full second. Junior Katie Drabot has the second-fastest 200 fly time, just ahead of Eastin.
Freshman Taylor Ruck has a top-five time in all three of her events. Her 200-yard backstroke time is second fastest, and she is fourth-fastest in the 100-yard variant. She also holds the fifth-fastest time in the 200-yard freestyle.
After winning their respective Pac-12 titles, senior Leah Stevens has the fourth-fastest 1,650-yard free time, and sophomore Grace Zhao will enter the 200-yard breaststroke as the fifth-fastest swimmer.
Despite Stanford being the early favorite, the rest of the field will be highly competitive. Both No. 6 California and No. 3 Michigan have very strong teams. The Golden Bears have five different swimmers entering with top-five times, while the Wolverines are putting six top-five swimmers in the field. Cal also has some of the best relay teams in the country, a level of depth that belonged to Stanford for the past two years.
“We were able to see Cal just a couple weeks ago,” Meehan said. “They have incredible relays. Just watching their relays is, in some ways, watching the 2018 version of ourselves. Watching them compete against us, I was thinking, ‘Man, so thats what it’s like.’ They are loaded with talent and their top end is really good.”
From today through Saturday, the Cardinal will attempt to capture the first three-peat since Auburn achieved the feat from 2002-04. Preliminary races will begin each morning at 7 a.m. PST, and finals will kick off at 4 p.m. PST.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.